“They were huge in Europe, all over the place, but we didn’t know about them,” he says. “They were the Manhattan Transfer (of their age). They knocked us out.” He compares their humor to that of the Marx Brothers.
The fine line in “Harmony” is creating a musical with a great score (almost 20 songs in all) but with a darker subject — and not making it overly morose. Manilow is quick to point out that this isn’t a Holocaust musical.
“It ends in 1935,” he says.
While Manilow is handling the music for the production, his longtime writing partner Bruce Sussman is responsible for the book and lyrics. The Atlanta gig is directed by Broadway veteran Tony Speciale.
Manilow and Sussman were in town recently for rehearsals and are pleased with what they are seeing.
“It is going great,” Sussman says. “It’s been thrilling; it is going to be a spectacular show.”
Sussman read an article about the Comedian Harmonists and soon after saw the documentary about them. He knew he had a project. The musical was first produced back in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif.
The upcoming Atlanta show is the first staging since, although there have been attempts to do it elsewhere. When Sussman and Manilow were looking around for a regional theater to re-stage it, people kept on mentioning the Alliance. They called and found a welcoming home.
“Harmony” has been tightened since the 1997 production. The first act is much shorter, Sussman says. He refers to it as a new vision.
Both men feel “Harmony” is especially relevant for LGBT audiences.
“Who wouldn’t relate to six friends in trouble creating beautiful music in a terrible time?” Manilow says.
Sussman believes “any group in the shadows or that have been in the shadows” can empathize with the characters. During the course of the musical is the rise of national socialism and the tracking down of gays and lesbians, he says.
After the Atlanta engagement, the musical will travel to Los Angeles. Beyond that, where it goes is anyone’s guess, although Sussman and Manilow certainly would not be opposed to taking it elsewhere.
For now, though, “our blinders are on; we’re only thinking of this production,” says Sussman.
Although they love the pop songs that made Manilow popular, the two realize that doing a stage musical takes a good five years to produce. Previously, the two worked on a stage version of “Copacabana” together, as well as a few films.
The secret to a 41-year working relationship, both men feel, is knowing how to collaborate — knowing that it’s okay sometimes to make a fool out of yourself and try new things until it all clicks.
Getting a one-week extension is Serenbe Playhouse’s “Hair,” the ‘60s rock musical that closes out the company’s three-show summer season.
Brian Clowdus, the openly gay artistic director of the company, is directing this version, as well as filling in for the role of Berger this weekend. In his hands, “Hair” is beautifully executed, with an ensemble cast that rabidly tears through the material.
It’s one of the best local musicals in recent years. If you haven’t seen it, do so before it closes.
Through Aug. 17
Out performers Jeffery Brown and Cathe Hall Payne are in the cast of this musical version of the Mel Brooks
Through Sept. 8
A number of gay actors appear in the ensemble of this lavish musical, based on the Victor Hugo novel and a Tony and Oscar winner.
Sept. 6 – Sept. 28
The Process Theatre at Onstage Atlanta
Johnny Drago’s world premiere is described as “The Glass Menagerie” meets “Hoarders” meets Anna Nicole Smith. A former D-movie starlet meets a handsome stranger. DeWayne Morgan stars.
Top photo: ‘Who wouldn’t relate to six friends in trouble creating beautiful music in a terrible time?’ asks pop legend Barry Manilow (right), who collaborated on ‘Harmony – A New Musical’ with longtime writing partner Bruce Sussman. (Courtesy photo)